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I was five minutes early for the meeting. I could see through the glass wall the individual I was set to meet was on a conference call. There were two other people in the office. The leader motioned to me to enter. And so I did, although in hindsight I wish I hadn't. "Dan, it's so good to see you," chimed the leader. I wondered to myself if I should be listening in on the conference call, which was still going strong and seemed rather confidential. Thankfully the phone was on mute. But as 1:00 pm turned over and the four of us were chatting away, something strange occurred. The leader was asked by one of her colleagues from the conference call what her thoughts were on a particular agenda item. Recognizing that her name had just been called while in mid-sentence with me, the leader took the phone off mute and quickly responded. "That team is so annoying," she said to me as the phone was put back on mute. The other two in the room smiled and nodded. "Sometimes I have no idea why I'm still in this job," she added. That last sentence was met with a couple of piercing chimes emanating from her mobile device. Aroused by the sound, she picked up the device and proceeded to text back, while the meeting continued on the telephone. The entire exchange outlined above lasted roughly 15 minutes. After mulling over this example, I would like to argue what happened in this particular situation, and what can be done to help leaders avoid such a predicament.

What Happened

  • Purpose: the leader operated in a job mindset, likely disengaged, and was unaware of how miserable she had become in a job that held no meaning for her.
  • Culture: in front of her direct reports, she was advocating for an "us versus them" corporate culture replete with fiefdoms, territoriality and an utter lack of collaboration.
  • Thinking: she should never have allowed me to enter the room during the conference call convincing herself she could multi-task, nor have been distracted by the text.
While my assessment may seem harsh, it is the predicament of many leaders and employees in today's organizations. We operate without a sense of purpose, we add to a "command and control" corporate culture by dissing our colleagues or refusing to work with them, and we pretend our levels of distraction, busyness and addiction to being "always on" are normal ways in which to lead. To be blunt, it is the fool who thinks this way.

What Next

Leaders need to constantly remind themselves that to be successful for the long-term they ought to be considering how they operate through the metaphor of a three-legged stool.

Purpose

The first task is to establish a positive and reciprocal connection between three distinct categories of purpose:
  • Personal purpose
  • Organizational purpose
  • Role purpose
If all three categories of purpose can come to fruition—if there is a positive interconnection between them—the benefits should be felt by employees, teams, the organization, customers, owners and, perhaps most importantly, society as a whole. We can refer to this balanced state as the “sweet spot.” Leaders must begin by first declaring and enacting their own personal purpose. They must ensure they are in a purpose mindset in their role. And of course, they must work towards building the organization's purpose such that it does not revolve solely around profit and/or power.

Culture

Great organizations realize that success is achieved through effective leadership, but if engaged employees is the primary outcome we desire from effective leadership, then it’s a question of whether leaders are embracing employees’ desires, first and foremost to be treated like responsible adults. This is the first step to a collaborative, open and engaged culture. Traditional leaders struggle with this concept as it represents a loss of control for them, but creative, less hierarchical-minded leaders who empower their team members are getting better results, and in turn, are empowered and emboldened to reach for greater successes with their team. Leadership doesn’t come from one, it comes from all. It is a leader's responsibility to create such a culture. An open and collaborative culture is one in which there is reciprocal trust between the employee and leadership to do what’s right however, whenever and with whomever.

Thinking

I argue that leaders need a more reflective and responsive thinking mindset. Our thinking ought to be shaped by constantly changing inputs and information. We should recognize that our thinking is only as good as our ability to continually challenge and question. Better thinking is dependent on how open we are to new ideas, how evidence-based our decision-making can be, how capable we remain to get things done. But according to my research, it's not happening. Thinking is the third leg of the leadership stool. For leaders to become more effective, they must weave three distinct components of daily thinking into their lives. I have coined it Open Thinking and it comprises three key categories:
  • Creative Thinking: the generation of new ideas, unleashed from constraints. Do you reflect?
  • Critical Thinking: the thorough analysis of ideas and facts to make an ethical and timely decision. How do you decide?
  • Applied Thinking: commitment to execute a decision. Will you take thoughtful action?
In a nutshell: Dream, Decide, Do, Repeat.

Next Steps

You can tap into this three-legged stool metaphor today! My third book, OPEN TO THINK: Slow Down, Think Creatively, and Make Better Decisions tackles the concept of Open Thinking. My second book, THE PURPOSE EFFECT: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization plots the course of personal, role and an organization's purpose. My first book, FLAT ARMY: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization outlines the key steps to enacting an open and collaborative culture. Put them all together and you will have yourself a three-legged stool of more effective leadership. It is exactly the type of strategy the leader from my opening story is in need of.    
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Testimonials

  • Dan is a conference organizer’s ideal speaker. Not only did he inspire and energize our group, but he also masterfully adapted his content so it resonated with the audience and our conference theme. As a bonus, Dan is able to nimbly navigate to adjust to a reduced time slot when other speakers went over time without sacrificing the impact of his session.

    Director and General Counsel
  • Dan accomplished what we set out to do, which was not only to be inspirational, but also to leave everyone with tools and food for thought / self-reflection to improve their personal and professional lives.

    Hermann Handa, FCT
  • Dan challenged us to have clarity of purpose, both as individuals and as an organization. He related inspiring stories drawing on his experience in business, technology and academia. As he said, ‘There is no ownership without belonging.’

    Christian Pantel, D2L
  • Dan Pontefract suggests leaders must be transformational and transactional, collaborative and considerate, daring and decisive, inclusive and insistent, playful and formal, harmonious, and humble, encouraging and results-driven. In a word, Flat.

    Robert Morris
    “How to strengthen engagement, empowerment, and execution, then leverage them for a decisive competitive advantage”

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